The only person Susan Pha listened to growing up in California was her mother, who often told her two things about her Hmong culture: that women should only be mothers and take care of the household chores.
That meant Pha, who arrived in the U.S. at age 3, couldn’t go to college to pursue her dream to become a writer; it meant she couldn’t work outside her house; and it meant she would get married as a teenager.
So Pha put off her dream to pursue a college education to fulfill her mother’s wishes: She got married during her senior year in high school to a man, Nicolas, she met through friends.
It was during this time that she realized it was difficult to sustain a family on one income. So she and Nicolas made their way to Minnesota for a job opportunity. First, Pha worked in retail stores and community organizations in the Twin Cities to make ends meet. She then became a real estate agent and pursued her dream to be become a writer.
That was more than two decades ago. Today, Pha is not only a successful small business owner and the author of two books, she’s a government official, who was elected last month to become the first council member of color to serve in Brooklyn Park.
Pha joins a growing list of Hmong-American officials elected to various state and local government positions — including council members Blong Yang of Minneapolis, Dai Thao of St. Paul and Tou Xiong of Maplewood as well as Minnesota Sen. Foung Hawj and Rep.-elect Fue Lee.
In her first attempt at political office, Pha defeated candidate Amy Hanson with 56 percent of the votes in the run for the Brooklyn Park’s West District seat, which John Jordan vacated by resigning earlier this year.
With nearly 80,000 residents, Brooklyn Park has seen a change in its demographics in recent decades. In 1990, the city was 10 percent people of color. Today, that number is more than 50 percent.
On a recent afternoon at the Brooklyn Park City Hall, during her first month on the job, Pha sat down with MinnPost to share her long journey to politics, her writing experience and what she plans to bring to the table as an elected official.
MinnPost: You came to the U.S. in 1980 with your mother and siblings. What was your experience growing up in California?
Susan Pha: I was born in Laos. During the Vietnam War, my father, who served alongside American soldiers, was killed in the war. … Me and my mom and my siblings moved to a refugee camp in Thailand. Then I came to the United States. I have no recollection of any of the stuff that happened in Laos or in the refugee camp — I was very young. I don’t even remember what my dad looked like. We have no pictures of him.
I spent most of my life in the U.S. The first city we lived in was San Diego. After three years, we moved to Fresno, in California, because it had a larger Hmong population. Hmong people tend to migrate where there is another Hmong community.
Then, when I got married at the age of 18, my husband and I moved up here to Minnesota. And we have been here in Minnesota for about 22 years. We moved to Minnesota because it had employment opportunities and a good community to raise a family in.
MP: You got married at a very young age. Did you go to college then while you were married?
SP: I didn’t go to college. I only finished high school. In my culture, at that time, I was told that girls didn’t need to go to school and that girls needed to stay at home and be housewives. Your pursuits were not education or profession or career. But it was to hope that at a certain age that you would be married and your job was really to be a mother and a wife. So, I got married in my senior year of high school.
After I got my high school diploma, I wasn’t allowed to go to college. My mom didn’t think I needed any more education, even though — at a very young age — I was a big dreamer. But I always felt I was this odd person because when I talked about my dreams, my family always shut me down.
MP: And what dreams did you have?
SP: I dreamed about becoming an author. I loved reading novels and history books. Reading was something that gave me a different experience outside of my regular experience at home. Because of my culture, my mom isolated me a lot from the experiences of the world. I didn’t see inside a movie theater until I was 17. I didn’t see inside a mall until I was 16. My family was also poor, so I didn’t get exposed to those things, but books did that for me. Books gave me an adventure. They showed me different places and how different people live.
MP: You’ve written two books, though you never took writing classes in college. How did you do it, and what kind of stories did you write?
SP: I always felt like there were limits put on me by my culture and family. People would often ask me, “Who is going to read your books?” Many times I felt, because I didn’t have an education and advanced writing skills, that I wasn’t good enough. Plus, I didn’t see people like me who write books. So, it wasn’t until 10 years ago that I started doing a little bit of writing as a side project. And then, about five years ago, I seriously thought, “I’m really going to write.” I told myself, “I’m no longer going to give up on this dream.”
[In 2014], I wrote my first book, “Hmong Names.” I spent a good three years in research and writing and about another year in publishing. Then, I wrote “Success That Looks Like Me.” What I’ve found throughout my life was that I didn’t see success that looked like me or people that came from my background. It was hard for me to find role models I could relate to. The people I admired, those I saw on TV, in the newspapers, they didn’t look like me. And I thought, they made it because they grew up different.
MP: When did you get interested in politics? Did you know you would end up running for a public office eventually?
SP: I never thought I would go into politics. But I’ve always been active in my community. I’ve always fought for communities I cared about. And so, I went into politics not just because I wanted to get into politics, but to make a change. I want to improve the lives of Brooklyn Park residents. I want to give people opportunities to prosper. I want social justice and economic equality. These are the things I fight for, and getting into local politics was one way to make real changes happen.
I decided to run for an office just a year ago. I never liked some of the dirty politics that sometimes happen. I was perfectly happy working in the community, trying to make a change that way. But I realized that I was on the other end of policy: trying to change policies that were already made. But now, I’m able to help write laws and allocate resources where it’s needed most and make sure that our money and our funds go into the right services.
MP: There were many candidates of color who ran for offices in Brooklyn Park in previous years, but none of them won. How was your campaign different?
SP: I attribute my victory not to myself or to this campaign, but I attribute it to the campaigns of the candidates before me. Every campaign that happens in this city moves the needle a little bit closer to victory. I think I won because it was just the right time. People were looking for a change. People were looking for more progressive thinkers. People were looking for new and different perspectives that represent all communities in the city.
MP: You were elected the same night Donald Trump was elected U.S. president. He was very critical of some immigrant and refugee communities. Did his rhetoric have any impact on the way voters treated you during the campaign?
SP: I lived in the Twin Cities area for over 20 years, and nine years in Brooklyn Park. I never felt as unsafe in my own community as I felt this year. I’ve encountered many people throughout my campaign who felt comfortable to give very biased and racist comments directly to me.
MP: You’re the only woman on the City Council and the only person of color. What do you hope to bring to the table?
SP: There are seven seats on the council for a reason, and that’s to bring diverse perspectives. Having different experiences is crucial in policymaking and deciding what policies work, what don’t work and where resources should go. So, I bring a unique perspective to the table. Beyond that, I want to make sure that we have opportunities for people here to truly prosper — that’s having access to education and good-paying jobs.
One of the challenges the city faces right now is that our policies and our city strategies do not reflect our communities. For a very long time, people of color have not been empowered to be part of civic engagement. How do we progress beyond where we are, and have a city that works for our current community? We have outdated policies and services that need to catch up.